Breast-Feeding Mother Has Case Over Arrest
(CN) - The 8th Circuit refused to dismiss claims that male officers arrested a breast-feeding mother in her home and insisted on watching while she used the bathroom.
Police had gone to the home of Chelsea Bechman after stopping her husband, Timothy, for a traffic violation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Timothy had been driving Chelsea's car, and Officer Mitchell Magill discovered in his computer database that there was a "possible" warrant on Chelsea for failure to carry proof of insurance.
Chelsea answered the door to police with her 10-month-old baby in her arms. She correctly informed the officers that the warrant had been recalled, but they insisted on taking her to jail so they could check the warrant's status.
"Officer Magill did not have any reason to arrest Bechman other than the unverified 'possible' warrant," the nine-page opinion states.
Bechman said she told the officers she needed to go to the bathroom because she was menstruating, but that they refused to allow her to use the bathroom without the door open and one of the two male officers watching.
She allegedly had no choice but to use the bathroom with Officer Eric Butler watched her from the hall.
They also refused to allow her to change her breast-milk-soaked shirt for a clean one, or to put on a bra, unless one of them watched her change clothes, according to the complaint. Bechman said she declined to change.
Magill then allegedly handcuffed the woman and took her to jail, where she was subjected to a strip- and body-cavity search.
Bechman said she was released the next morning when the jailers found the warrant no longer active.
A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit affirmed Tuesday that the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity from unreasonable seizure claims.
"The officers here concede no valid warrant existed at the time they arrested Bechman," Judge William Riley wrote for the court in St. Louis, Mo. "They also concede there was no other probable cause for Bechman's arrest."
The officers pointed to several cases where the courts found it reasonable to make an arrest on a recalled warrant, but the panel found that, in each of these cases, the officer was mistakenly informed the warrant was still outstanding.
"Officers Magill and Butler did not have knowledge of the Bechman warrant's existence," Riley wrote. "The 'existence of the warrant,' or the lack thereof, would not be checked until 'the next morning.'"
The officers were clearly trained that a computer "hit" on the warrant database is not an independently good reason to make an arrest, according to the ruling.
"The district court correctly determined that no reasonable police officer could actually believe Bechman's warrantless arrest was lawful, given the information supplied to the officers and the circumstances surrounding Bechman's arrest," Riley wrote.
Left unaddressed is whether the "humiliating indignities" Bechman suffered during the arrest was an independent claim of unreasonable seizure.